During a two-day deep dive into OU kosher’s policy to certify “dairy English muffins,” a thoughtful talmid raised a fundamental question: Does Hashem truly care about all these details? Why do we devote so much attention to English muffins? Why the obsession with minutiae?
I asked for an evening to prepare a thoughtful response. Here is what I told the students the next day:
In every area of serious concern, details matter. To the physician, tiny details often spell the difference between life and death. The same applies to an airplane mechanic. A businessman who does not devote proper attention to the details of his business is doomed to fail. To the scientist, attention to detail can make a difference in developing a breakthrough and world-changing product.
Even in sports, details are profoundly important. For example, imagine the following scenario: A running back in American football carries the ball approximately 10 yards and is very close to a “first down.” In such situations, the referees must carefully measure if the first down has been achieved. However, in our imaginary case, the referees quickly estimate whether the first down was achieved without taking a careful measurement. They, then, announce to the fans that it looks like a first down has been reached and signal a first down.
Even the most moderate sports enthusiast would be outraged. If a referee acted this way, his life would be at risk. A referee who does not devote proper attention to the game’s details disrespects the sport. Disregarding the sport’s details shows he does not treat it seriously.
L’havdil, we Jews are the heirs of a great legacy — the greatest and noblest of gifts. We have the responsibility and privilege of observing and preserving God’s law. How can we not take halachic details seriously? Moreover — just as a sports fan revels in the game’s details — we who love Hashem and His Torah revel in the details of Torah observance. Far from being a burden, it is a source of great and genuine happiness and joy.
Authentic Devotion Versus Rote Adherence
Unfortunately, some Jews observe the Torah out of rote or living up to community expectations. Yishayahu HaNavi (29:13-14) decries such observance as מצות אנשים מלומדה, following societal norms instead of obeying the dvar Hashem. Precisely adhering to the dvar Hashem and taking time to arrive at a thorough understanding of the halacha combats a tendency to rote observance. Precision and in-depth exploration express deep commitment.
Halachic Precision and Middot Tovot
Emblazoned on the back cover of “Halacha 24/7/12” by Rav Ari Marcus is a surprising comment from the Chazon Ish (Maaseh Ish 1:8). He states, “Precision in applying halacha is the sole way to mend personality traits.” One does not typically associate careful halachic observance with improving middot. So, why does the Chazon Ish make this connection?
I suggest that the discipline of rigorous halachic observance trains us to discipline ourselves and improve our middot tovot. If we relate to Hashem carefully, we will exercise care to treat our fellow humans properly.
Adherence to details has kept us one nation. It is stunning that despite the thousands of years and miles apart, the letters in a Sephardic Sefer Torah and an Ashkenazic Sefer Torah are identical. We would expect dramatic differences in the lettering, given the degree and length of the Jewish dispersion.
The identical Torah letters are dramatic testimony to our dogged determination to maintain the Torah’s integrity, despite all challenges. In every Jewish community throughout the far-flung Jewish world, scribes, scholars and ordinary Jews scrupulously paid meticulous attention to detail to preserve the tradition from one generation to another. The result is equally dramatic. Despite the many miles of separation, we maintained a unified Torah text and ensured that we remain am echad, one nation.
Rav Saadia Gaon famously asserted that “Ein umoteinu umah ela b’Toratah” (our nation is a nation only by its Torah). Torah observance unifies the Jewish people, and, more than anything else in Jewish life, the unified Torah text maintains us as one nation.
The Gemara (Ta’anit 23a) relates an elderly Jew’s compelling message to Choni HaMe’agel: “Just as my ancestors planted for me, so too I plant for my descendants.” Jews in every community paid meticulous attention to detail and maintained the Torah text without deviation, bequeathing a precious and unparalleled legacy of Jewish unity. We — the heirs of this divine tradition — are called upon to make every effort to devote serious attention to detail and authentically transmit our holy mesorah/tradition to future generations. In doing so, we maintain the unified path of our people through its journey through history toward the ultimate redemption. For this reason, we pay extraordinary attention to detail about all mitzvot, especially kashrut.
The Centrality of Kashrut
The Halacha devotes copious attention to eating. Hilchot kashrut, hilchot brachot and hilchot chametz u’matzah, for example, occupy wide swaths of the Shulchan Aruch. Rav Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin explains that adhering to the halachot governing eating corrects (is a tikkun) Adam and Chava’s sin of eating from the eitz hada’at (tree of knowledge).
Adam and Chava’s primary command was to refrain from eating from the eitz hada’at. Similarly, every ben Noach must not eat a limb from a live animal (eiver min hachai). A human being must restrict his eating in some manner, since such restraint distinguishes him as a human being. On the other hand, an animal eats without restrictions. Therefore, a human must think before eating, “is this permissible,” to transcend his biology.
A Jew must further develop himself with deeper restraint to scale the heights of spirituality expected from us.
It is understandable to wonder why we fuss about halachic detail. However, upon contemplation, attention to halachic detail is nothing less than the lifeblood of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.